About “Synesthesia of Law”

What is the role of law in structuring, orienting and perpetuating the multiplicity of conflicts that shape our public and private life? What function does law play in structuring and orienting the ethical dimensions of the multiplicity of conflicts that shape our public and private life? How, if at all, might law serve to relieve and mitigate them? These are the overarching questions addressed by this new collaboration between Princeton University and Sciences Po Law School.

As the first of what we hope will be a series of annual gatherings to be held alternately in Princeton and Paris, this event will draw upon recent innovative work by scholars from various academic fields, and will be organized around a self-consciously provocative reconceptualization of law as a multi-sensual, perceptual process or experience of sense-making.

Considered from this perspective, law is conceived not as a textual product of a reasoned “black-letter” decision, a ‘pure’ system of abstract norms, or an ‘unaffected’ institution of justice, but as a material and sensorial phenomenon or process that speaks, touches, sees, smells and tastes, and is simultaneously heard, seen, felt, tasted and smelled.


Synesthesia and Law

We understand the term synaesthesia as a crossing of boundaries, a sensual saturnalia and mixture of the unmixable. Hearing colors, smelling music, sensing law. Synesthesia, we propose, is colorful and unruly, neither subsumable nor legible by means of common procedures. We thus invoke the term not only to denote translatability, simultaneity and perceptibility, but also to suggest a possibility of mixture, manipulation, movement, and change. It can be understood as pointing to the moments of interaction between various perceptible – that is visual, audible, haptic, olfactory, palpable dimensions of law – thereby producing a multi-dimensional and multi-sensuous space of rhizomatic interrelation.

Law, we therefore insist, is to be found not only in the judicial decision, the act of legislation, or the wording of a contract, but also in the assured crossing of a bustling road when the light turns green, in the docile step into a dark and cold classroom at the alarming sound of a ringing bell, in the thick scent of a burning tree in the Amazon, in the feelings of anxiety, anger and fear with which we are engulfed each time the government ‘color-codes’ our sense of security, and in the blended taste of the genetically-modified tomato we nevertheless devour with gusto.


Sensitive and Sensible Intervention

The shift in focus to these long-ignored but important facets of the juridical is an important political statement about not only the presence of law in the seemingly most intimate moments and areas of life but also of law’s role in shaping and structuring the way we experience, sense, and make ‘sense’ of these.

By challenging the underpinnings and limits of our longstanding notions of the juridical, and by drawing attention to the existence of many unrecognized ‘fora’ of law-making –the street, the classroom, and the rainforest– the conference aims to suggest not only an alternative way of knowing, thinking, and ‘practicing’ law, but also the availability of a multiplicity of undertheorized channels for legal/political action. In so doing, we hope to open new ways to respond to current political, juridical and socio-cultural conflicts – conflicts that, much like law, transcend and transgress social, cultural, institutional, geographical, material and sensorial boundaries.


Linked Sensing

The conference will bring together the geographically- and disciplinary-dispersed community of established and new voices in critical (legal) studies — scholars, artists and activists– to exchange and collaborate in the development of a new critical discourse, as well as to build stronger links between the study of law and other fields (including political theory, history, sociology, anthropology, philosophy, economic theory, literature, linguistics, gender studies, critical race theory, performativity studies, and media theory).

By Daniela Gandorfer and Nofar Sheffi